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Written by Luisa Mitchell
Perth in the 1980s was full of punk, booze, and student parties. I wanted to know what my Dad, Peter Mitchell, was up to during that time when he was studying at WAIT. All I knew about his years there prior to this interview was that he’d gotten up to loads of fun, met and started dating my Mum in one of his plays, and never actually ended up using his degree (apart from that one time I made him act in one of my really bad short film projects for my Year 12 Media class). Instead, my Dad has dedicated most of life to working in community and social services sector in the Kimberley. He is now the CEO of Men’s Outreach Services in Broome, where he helps men with their mental, emotional, and substance abuse issues, amongst other issues.
So, about 30 years later, I, myself now studying Curtin University, sat down for a casual chat and a laugh with my Dad. This is what happened.
Peter Mitchell rehearsing for one of his plays as a theatre student at WAIT c. 1982.
When were you at WAIT and what were you studying?
I was there at WAIT, and then it became Curtin while I was there. I was there in ’82 and ’83 and then I took two years off and lived in Sydney. I came back and finished the degree in ’86. I was studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English and Theatre Arts.
What’s your strongest memory of your time at uni?
Just being involved in theatrical productions there, mostly at the Hayman Theatre; doing some good plays and quite a lot of challenging stuff—I got some good friendships out of that. At least one of those people [from theatre] is still in my close circle of friends.
Mitchell rehearsing at the Hayman Theatre with unknown actress c. 1982.
What was it like being a student in the 1980s? Can you briefly summarise your life back then?
I was a mature-age student, so that was really good going into uni as a mid-twenty-year-old. I’d already been out and living a life, and travelled and worked and done a lot of things, so it was very good coming in as a student at that age. It meant that a lot of the hang-ups and fears you might have had as an 18- or 19-year-old, and the distractions that come with being that young, weren’t there. It also meant I didn’t really get involved in the drinking culture that the rest of that the younger crew were getting into. There was a bit of a scene at the Guild Tavern in those days and that didn’t really interest me, I wasn’t a regular there.
Also, study was pretty serious, because even though I was only doing a single major, it was a lot. I was always amazed at the energy and motivation that some of my colleagues had with their double majors, because even a single major seemed too much for me. But I threw myself into my studies quite seriously. I mean, I wasn’t a great student, I was always late. But particularly with the theatre stuff, I threw myself into it; because it was a team thing, you kind of had to prioritise it. It was quite demanding.
The other epicentre of my life, apart from the theatre, was the arts building. They had a really great stream called Literature, Language and Culture, which all arts students had to do in their first year. It was kind of to give students a basic grounding in the building blocks of western culture. You quickly went through the Iliad, the Odyssey, to the Bible, and then onto Shakespeare and Chaucer. It was really good.
I also remember the introduction of the HECS fees in the ‘80s. I remember going to some protests about that against the government of the day. The whole of the ‘80s was Bob Hawke’s Labor government though, so in a sense students didn’t have a lot to protest about [laughs]. It wasn’t really a politically active time for students… at least, that’s how I recall it.
I also remember we played in a soccer comp, with a couple of the guys from Theatre Arts, in a team called the ‘Tarts’, and we played against these jock guys. We used to play a relaxed social soccer game there, which was a male and female mixed team. And then when we played a real proper game against the jocks we went on as the ‘Tarts’—it was awesome.
Why did you pursue theatre as a degree?
It was probably the reason why I made the leap to go back into study. I’d been involved in amateur productions in 1981, and I really enjoyed that, and I felt that I’d found something that I was good at and that I enjoyed. I thought, “let’s give this a go.”
What kind of roles were you cast as in your plays?
Unforgettable roles… memorising! Life-changing roles [laughs]!
“Caught in the act: Peter Mitchell tries to restrain Angelique Cocks in the restored cell of the old asylum at Fremantle Museum… [as] part of a rehearsal for a new play titled ‘Cell’…” Text from unsourced promotion for ‘Cell’, featuring Mitchell and Cocks c. 1982.
One of the reviews of your acting said, “Peter Mitchell does a good job as the hard and harsh Juan.” Another play called ‘Cell’ had you cast as a creep, trying ‘to restrain Angelique Cocks’. Were you often playing the bad guys?
Yeah, I was, but remember that I was slightly older. When I look back at the photos now I think I look really young and relatively slim and effeminate almost, but at the time for every male that was in that course there were 7 or 8 women. So, just being a guy meant you had a big advantage getting roles [laughs]. There were plenty of guys, you didn’t automatically get a gig for sure, but for girls it was much harder to get a leading role.
But I probably kind of had that frown and I could look mean, and I had a strong voice. I don’t know, it was a combination of all those things… being my super macho self [laughs].
You acted in a ‘punk-rock’ play which is coincidentally where you also started dating my Mum. How close are you now with the people you went to uni with, and how did those people influence you as a person?
There are a couple, but most of my friends from that era were people I’d befriended before I went to WAIT. I’d already established a circle of friends that I’m friends with now, but they weren’t necessarily my WAIT friends.
Also, I wasn’t a single person, I was living with your Mum at the time. I wasn’t in that party mode, I was already an older person, and had a life outside of uni that was already established.
Mitchell, second to the left, in a ‘punk-rock’ theatre production by the Hayman Theatre students c. 1982.
What do you think are the biggest differences in our experiences as students, from when you were there in the 1980s, to my studies now in the 2010s?
It’s a bit hard to say because I’m not there now, but the change in the uni has been massive. WAIT was one of the biggest universities in Australia even then, but in terms of the buildings that are on there, where there’s massive buildings now there was just space before. My perception is that it would be easy to feel a bit lost at the uni now. Before there were 5 or 6 major buildings, that was it. There’s a lot of brand new buildings now, though. Curtin’s quite corporate now, in a way.
But some things are the same. You’ve still got to bust your arse and do a lot of study and finish a lot of assignments, put in a lot of hours at the library or online, or both. It means lots of coffees and time wasting.
You nailed the student experience!
Yeah [laughs]! I guess the other thing that’s totally new though is the way bigger contingent of international students. There were overseas students when I was there too, but the overseas student population at uni would be way bigger now.
Does it feel like things have come full circle, now that myself, your daughter, is studying at Curtin, and asking you questions about your time as a student?
No. There is no circle… [laughs].
No, I suppose so. I think it’s fantastic what you’re doing. Some of my friends were doing film as their major also [like yourself], so that’s a fairly good connection.
You’re now the Manager of a not-for-profit Men’s Outreach program in Broome. How did you go from acting to social/community work?
I took a very zig-zag route, I suppose. There were a lot of changes in between. I don’t think there’s a direct link. But because I’m a senior manager, you have to have some degree of confidence talking to people, and I don’t have any problem with that. We know a lot of people at work that fear public speaking worse than death itself… literally [laughs]! So, speaking and communication were good skills that I developed during my time at uni.
Peter Mitchell, 2018. Photo by Luisa Mitchell.